Sahibjaan – Touched by a ‘Pakeezah’ Soul


The ‘ghungroo’ feet that have been deeply imprinted into the sands of time are those of the Lucknowi-nautch girl ‘Sahibjaan’, played by the tragedy queen Meena Kumari. Sahibjaan – a ‘tawaif’ who was prohibited to fall in love has a chance encounter with the love of her life that takes her onto a roller coaster ride of emotions. While the film, Pakeezah proceeds, one cannot help but witness Sahibjaan’s sheer helplessness, her undying quest for love and her constant struggle to be accepted by a judgmental society. Sahibjaan’s journey gives us a sneak peek into the life of a courtesan of the 20th Century. It shows her trials and tribulations and fight for a life of self respect and dignity which is disturbingly similar to the plight of prostitutes in modern times despite the turn of a century. 

Meena Kumari’s performance as Sahibjaan in the film-Pakeezah, is not just one of the best performances of her career, but also unfortunately the last best performance of her life.

Unlike the ultimate fate of her character, Meena Kumari’s personal life at the time was marred with trouble; alcoholism, separation from her estranged husband Kamal Amrohi and cirrhosis of liver. Aware of the limited time she had to live and her rapid deteoriating health, Meena Kumari went out of her way to complete the film. During the shoot of one of her songs, ‘Teer-e-nazar’ her condition worsened and she collapsed on the sets, actress Padma Khanna was used to complete the dance sequence. Meena Kumari died at the age of 38 on 31st March 1972, just a few weeks after the release of this film.

Bollywood Trivia: Since its ‘Muhurat’ in 1956 to its final release in 1972, ‘Pakeezah’ took 16 years to reach the silver screen. In 1964, when the film was halfway complete, it came to an abrupt halt due to the separation of Meena Kumari and her husband Kamal Amrohi. But the film got to see the light of day only after Sunil Dutt and Nargis organised a meeting between the two in the year 1969.

The Story

After the death of her mother – Nargis, Sahibjaan is raised by her aunt Nawabjaan – a brothel owner. On a train journey, a young forest officer Salim (Raaj Kumar) enters her compartment. Mesmerized by her beauty, he leaves her a note while she is asleep. Sahibjaan finds the letter and pines for him. Despite unwelcome attention from her patrons, she hopes to find the man who wrote the letter to her someday and marry him. As luck has it, she happens to meet him in a forest one day only to be taken back to the brothel by Nawabjaan. Later, the paths of Sahibjaan and Salim cross once again. Unaware about her dark past, Salim decides to anoint her ‘Pakeezah – Purest of heart’ and marry her. But as her past begins to haunt her, she flees the scene and returns to her doomed brothel. A heartbroken Salim decides to marry someone else and invites Sahibjaan to perform a ‘mujra’ at his wedding. An emotional charged ending and a big revelation at the wedding forms the crux of Pakeezah’s story.

Though the character played by Meena Kumari was named ‘Sahibjaan’, the name anointed by Raaj Kumar – ‘Pakeezah – the purest heart’ stuck with the audiences as it mortified the pure soul of a courtesan who ironically was nothing more than an object desired by men.

On 3rd February 1972, a boat set sail in the Arabian Sea and was called ‘Pakeezah’. The film premiered at Maratha Mandir. Meena Kumari attended the last premiere of her life despite fragile health. The film first received a lukewarm response after its release to the general masses, but post the death of Meena Kumari the movie ran full houses for 33 weeks and went on to complete its silver jubilee. Songs of the film; ‘Inhi logon ne’, ‘Thade Rahiyo’, ‘Chalte Chalte’, ‘Mausam hain Aashiqana’ and ‘Teer-e-nazar’ have created history while the movie has achieved cult status.

Pakeezah is an Indian film, written and directed by Kamal Amrohi, released in 1972. It is considered as one of the gems of Indian Cinema. Pakeezah is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Character Biopsy written by Vivin Esstibro (Venito).

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